Alright, gather around everyone, because this oldfag who has been on /a/ since its inception is about to tell you a story. It’s no different from a typical bedtime story your mum tells you when you were five to get you to sleep quicker. This story involves heroes and villains, idealists and criminals, trust and betrayal, comings, goings and even secret syndicates complete with underground deals. Yes – this is a story about fansubbing.
Fansubbing is a fascinating topic and can warrant 10 blog posts of this size to itself should I go in depth in any of the areas I’m about to divulge into right now. Due to time constraints, I will have to condense everything into one lecture. Note that this article is extremely condensed, so if you’re an oldfag like me and you’re angry this article didn’t go down to the exciting, nitty-gritty details of everything (especially fansub drama happening today), don’t blame me too much and write your own blog post.
I can easily say that Anime has been a prevalent format of media in Japan for quite a long time, dating to before World War II, but it wasn’t really visible in America until the early 80’s. However, the Western distributors at this stage saw anime as nothing different to the typical American cartoons that appealed to little shotas and lolis. Of course, Japanese anime is a very different art form compared to American cartoons, a topic we are all too familiar with which I do not need to go into.
A very important stage in our story is the English adaptation of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. New World Pictures, the American distributor, treated it as a marketing tool towards children, cutting expenses everywhere, removing half the original movie and changing all the characters’ names to ones that kids can remember. This offended Studio Ghibli to such extent that they announced that they will reject all Western licenses from then onwards indefinitely. Many studios actually followed suit, causing a complete halt of anime entering into the U.S. American fans had to take the matters into their own hands.
The defining moment of fansubbing came when Apple introduced their revolutionary Macintosh computer, the first commercially produced personal computer that introduced a Graphical User Interface. For the first time in history, a household electronic with little extra (and affordable) hardware will allow one to overlay subtitles on top of a video stream in the comforts of his own home. This is what began the fansubbing procedure.
So how did they get the source? Well, VHS of course! VHS was used to record anime while they are airing, and they will be flown back to the US to be translated. Distribution involved lending out these tapes, and so fourth. As the number of watchers increased, companies such as ADV Films saw the potential of anime (as well as their different audience group) and started actively working with Japan at importing titles into the United States, and eventually Europe.
As we can see, unlike movie and music piracy, fansubbing has actually had a longer history beforehand as already stated, so by the time the Internet came out, fansubbers were quick to hop onto it as a distribution platform even before the advent of BitTorrent. IRC was the method of choice (and really, the only viable method at the time). Of course, the transition wasn’t pretty. Back then there wasn’t really a unified video codec, nor is there a distribution method that ordinary people could use.
All this is very interesting, but this should actually be the least of our worries. Problems such as many releases being in the form of .OGM eventually sort themselves out, as we can imagine. Fansubbing up to this stage has only been about bringing otherwise unobtainable anime to the fans, and the rise of the Internet has solved this problem. What other problems does the fansub community still face now that the biggest problem has already been taken care of? The biggest one yet.
The Dark Ages
I think I read once on AnimeSuki before that a geek community usually goes through something called a “Golden Age” before going into the “Dark Age”. For example, FAKKU.net (a forum I have quite a long history with) has certainly had its days during its golden age with a tight-knit, courteous and friendly community that drew me in. If you actually visit the forums now, you will find a place overloaded with trolls and unmoderated pandemonium. If you think about all the niche communities that you know of, that’s usually the case. That’s not the case with fansubs. There is no doubt that we are living in the golden age of fansubs right now, and the dark ages is behind us. So what is this “dark age”?
Quite simply, the transition of fansubs from VHS to Internet led straight into the “dark ages”. Why is called the dark ages? It’s not because of the fact that there wasn’t a unified video/audio codec. It’s not because the quality wasn’t great. It’s because of one single fansub group which arose, and defined the ethics of almost every fansub group at this time. I am talking, of course, about #AnimeJunkies. Rather than me talking about this group, I think I should use some memes still used in the fansub group community today to explain for me:
- Mass Naked Child Events:
Ever complained about the translations a fansub group can do? Well, in the dark ages, you don’t have any place to complain because there just isn’t a lot of fansub groups out there. There are usually barely enough to cover a third of what’s airing every season. Not only that, many fansub groups out there at the time (influenced by #AnimeJunkies) actually deliberately mistranslate lines to mislead people. Of course, #gg still does this today, but at least you have alternatives. Back then, there were none.
- WE WON’T RELEASE THIS EPISODE UNTIL WE HAVE 1000 PEOPLE ON IRC!
Many fansub groups back in the dark ages were extremely egoistic, and this is again mostly defined by AnimeJunkies. Is another group doing this series? We have to get our episode out before them no matter what! Editing the script? Quality typesetting? Fans? Who cares? We just need to release it first, and nothing else matters! Most leechers are stupid anyway, and they don’t care about quality. Speedsubs speedsubs speedsubs!
- TIMED BY KILLSHOK
Killshok is the leader of AnimeJunkies, and today his name is associated with “absolute junk”. He is mad with ego. Essentially, the dark ages is a period of time where the fansub groups have absolutely no respect to the people who originally made the anime. This is almost too illogical to comprehend, but it’s true. Actual credits are blurred out, replaced by members of the fansub group as well as blatant advertising.
- “Who the fuck are you anyways to buy a series we were doing?”
This last point is pretty much just focused on AnimeJunkies alone. There aren’t many groups even in the dark ages that are rude to this extent, although it is true that in the dark ages, there are more than just a few fansub groups that show absolutely no respect to American licensors. The famous letter than AnimeJunkies wrote to Urban Vision is a good example of the kind of animosity between the two parties at that time.
The Golden Ages
It’s actually difficult to explain just how quickly the fansub community changed. Take China for example. When the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it’s almost impossible to understate just how behind China was compared to the rest of the World economically, socially, politically and in all other aspects. In a mere 30 years, it has gone from one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the World to one with the second highest GDP, and arguably the next superpower after the United States.
Just as it’s almost impossible to explain just what happened to China in such a short period of time for it to improve to such extent, it’s equally difficult to explain just how quickly fansubs evolved to what it is today. After AJ died a well-deserved death in 2004, the English fansub community underwent radical changes. What are most of the changes?
The fansub groups of the dark ages had a lot of pride, so softsubs were nonexistent back in the days. Everything was encoded in AVI in fear that another group will steal the script, and make it into their own translations and releases. The transition to softsubs and the MKV container did take a few years, with fansub group blogs always filled with the dreaded “Where is the XviD”? Today, while many groups still compliment their releases with XviD AVI files, the community is pretty much H.264 MKV, which is a good format. Softsubs are easily edited and typeset, which allows for much higher quality work than before.
- Unified video codecs:
Back in the dark ages, every fansub group released their own releases in whatever format or encoding that pleased them. This includes OGM, AVI, RMVB… and the list goes on. This actually makes it very inconsistent, and all-too-frequently do we get releases that not only gives us eye cancer, but our computers problems to find the codec to deal with them. This also limits the number of viewers in the medium (many people were turned off by having to deal with codecs). Today, Anime fansub groups have a unified standard, which means all releases from any sub group can be played as long as you have installed CCCP, a project which was started by encoders from various groups within the “inner circle”.
- The Inner Circle:
This can be seen as both a good thing and a bad thing of the community today, but to 100% of leechers, this is definitely a good thing. In essence, the “Inner Circle” is an association of groups, sharing an incredibly efficient water line starting from the raw provider in Japan all the way to the distro on NyaaTorrent or FileServe.
How is it possible for groups to produce fansubbed episodes of anime series within hours of them airing in Japan? Adding onto the fact that the video are flawless in quality, as with the subtitles themselves. It’s because such a thing is possible that we are in the golden age today.
Turns out, if you start a fansub group yourself today, there’s no way you can actually do something like this. You *seriously* have no way to obtain the RAW in time. By the time a RAW shows up on Nyaa, a subbed version is usually already out. The only way to obtain RAWs on time is by being part of the “Inner Circle”, who have cappers in Japan to supply them with a MPEG Transport Stream. This Inner Circle pretty much have absolute dominance of the fansub community of today. You can’t just start a fansub group yourself anymore like you can before, because the Inner Circle’s releases are so efficient there’s no way your releases will ever get noticed, unless you’re a part of them.
- Refined fansubbing process:
After obtaining the RAW, almost all fansub groups follow a fixed, extremely efficient procedure to get their releases out, in high quality for the viewers. This is generally the process:
- Capping: The Capper records the show on TV and instantly uploads it onto the water line. (~20 min)
- Translating: The Translater writes a script of everything that has been said in the episode as soon as the RAW is available. Sometimes this can be done by the Capper. (~30 min)
- Timing: Happens as soon as the RAW is uploaded. The starting time and ending time for every line is encoded into Aegisub by the Timer. This process doesn’t have to wait for translation to finish, as the script can be put into Aegisub after the timing is done. (~30 min)
- Editing: Happnens while the translated script is loaded into Aegisub (already timed). As the Translator is usually not very good at English, the script is turned into more natural, Americanized style of speaking. (~1 hour)
- Typesetting: The Typesetting makes the font right, and puts every line and word into the right places on the video. Depending on how many notes the show needs, this can take varying amounts of time. e.g. Bakemonogatari is a nightmare for Typesetters.
- QC: A final check of the completed product to see if there are any mistakes. Some speedsubbing groups such as #gg skip this step to save time. (~1 hour)
- Encoding: Makes the final product into a MKV container than is viewable by anyone with CCCP. The time depends on how colorful the episode is. Madoka’s final episode took a long time to encode, for example.
- Distro: Makes the episode into a torrent file. Many people responsible for distro seed it at first to prevent swarming. The episode is also placed on IRC and FileServe for other methods of access for the viewers to download.
With the framework as streamlined as this, no wonder this is the Golden Age of fansubs. Leechers have access to almost every episode of anime aired in Japan within hours of airing, subbed to a great quality. Fansubbers have started to earn money too through donations and file hosting companies such as FileServe itself. So this is a happy ending of the story, right? Nope.
How I wish I could have just ended the story there. After all, who doesn’t like a happy ending? Unfortunately, that’s not the entire story yet. There’s one more thing I have to talk about, which is the legal status of fansubs. It is undeniable that without fansubs back in the 80’s, there will be no anime fandom outside of Japan today. However, are fansubs still so beneficial to the industry today? Below is from the United States Copyright Law, Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107.
“…the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
When an anime series is distributed, just how damaging is it to the potential market of the series? When a series is licensed, there is a company in the United States that sells, or will eventually sell it for profit. In such a situation, it is undeniable that the existence of fansubs will be damaging to the company. However, what if the series is unlicensed? At that moment in time, no United States businesses will be compromised by the existence of English fansubs, because no one has the rights to sell the anime outside of Japan anyway.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that fansubs don’t hurt the Japanese industry, since fansubs will affect the future sales of anime overseas, and the original Japanese licenser is supposed to get a cut of that. This is where articles from the Berne Convention (arguably the most important law that binds Japanese and American laws together) come in. Article 2 states:
“Translations, adaptations, arrangements of music and other alterations of a literary or artistic work shall be protected as original works without prejudice to the copyright in the original work.”
The loophole in this statement is that this only concerns the video and audio. The fansubs themselves can be considered an original creation. This is actually a predominant reason why fansubs have transitioned into softsubs within MKV containers – because this means that the fansub groups themselves cannot be persecuted for their work, since their work in ASS is independent from the video and audio. Naturally, when you download fansubbed anime, you are technically doing something illegal by obtaining the video and audio, even though getting the fansub by itself isn’t.
However, it is a incredibly painful process for the Japanese to actually sue people overseas, or do anything to them for that matter. When you illegally download fansubbed anime that are unlicensed, it doesn’t actually violate the United States copyright laws and only that of originating from the Berne Convention. With the Berne Convention articles, Japan can technically sue anyone involved making, or downloading fansubs if they can be bothered. That means this Golden Age, and all that we know of fansubbing today, can collapse with the blink of an eye if the Japanese studios actually wanted to take legal action.
But will they? I leave that question up to you.